From Cages to Science: A Conversation with Dr. Lester E. Fisher, Retired Director of the Lincoln Par

Dr. Lester E. Fisher was a true visionary in the zoo profession. During his three decades as Director of the Lincoln Park Zoo in Chicago, he transformed the institution into a leader in animal research and a modern zoo. Fisher was particularly known for his expertise in great apes as he led the Lincoln Park Zoo to having the largest gorilla population in North America and conducted groundbreaking research on the species. Here is his story.

@ Lincoln Park Zoo

Fisher began by reflecting on the importance of the continual evolution of zoos. “The most important thing we’ve learned is animals are a very deserving part of our quality of life whether it’s a pet dog or a lion at the zoo,” he elaborated. “[Because of this,] they should receive the best possible care. Our medical teams are much more sophisticated and experienced now. The concept of the postage stamp zoo where you have a bit of everything- eight kinds of bears instead of one- has all come and gone. When I started working in zoos, the animals were basically in jail with cement walls and barred fronts. That is all historical and now zoos are what their original name is- zoological gardens.”

@ Lincoln Park Zoo

Fisher came into zoos completely circumstantially. “I came home from my service in the army and a friend of mine, Wes Young, was working in the humane society,” he explained. “I was getting clinical experience and looking for something to do so Wes said Northwestern needed a veterinarian, which was literally a five minute drive from the zoo. At the time, Marlin Perkins [the zoo’s director] would call Wes up if he had a sick animal and Wes would let me come along. Over a period of months, I became aware of and involved in some of the medical issues at the Lincoln Park Zoo.”

@ Lincoln Park Zoo

This was just the beginning of Fisher’s growing relationship with the zoo. “I then had a small animal practice in a suburb of Chicago and when Marlin found out he said I should consider being a part-time zoo veterinarian,” he continued. “I was starting my practice from ground zero so I said why not. For fifteen years, I would spend a half day a week committed to the health of the animals at the zoo. When Marlin Perkins decided to go back to Saint Louis, I had already become hooked to the zoo, the animals and the challenges and after months of thought I decided to apply to become zoo director.” In 1964, Les Fisher became Director of the Lincoln Park Zoo.

@ Lincoln Park Zoo

At the time, the zoo was in need of upgrading despite the efforts of Marlin Perkins beforehand. “Lincoln Park was a classic old zoo,” Fisher remarked. “It’s a very small zoo spatially. A lot of the structures went back to the early, early 1900s and were small and antiquated. The challenge became to see how I’d make life better for the animals and create funds for the transition.”

@ Lincoln Park Zoo

Fisher immediately began to find better funding sources for the zoo in order to make needed improvements. “The Chicago Park District owned the zoo and they were the landlord if you will,” he noted. “It was all public tax dollars. I had to go out into the private sector and see if people would be willing to give me money to upgrade these facilities. Over a period of time, we got the capital money to rebuild much of the zoo.”

@ Lincoln Park Zoo

“The big thing was I eliminated the concept of saying who had the most of which kind of animals was the best,” Fisher continued. “When I started, we had 2,600 animals in the zoo of many species and subspecies. Within five-six years, we cut that almost in half. The idea was to have fewer, changing collections and build up breeding programs. That was the thrust of change that started at Lincoln Park Zoo. We cut the number of animals in the Lion House in half [to give the animals more space.]” The zoo also was expanded slightly with the opening of Farm In a Zoo, a recreation of a Midwestern farm. “I built the first farm with domesticated animals in a zoo in the country,” Fisher noted. “We tried to tell the story of what happens in agriculture to a large urban population. People can come twice a day and watch milkings in the dairy farm.”

@ Lincoln Park Zoo

One of the Lincoln Park Zoo’s milestone projects was opening the Lester Fisher Great Ape House in 1976. “We took the apes out of their tiny cages in the old Monkey House,” Fisher stated. Featuring gorillas, chimpanzees and orangutans, this building would allow the zoo to continue its groundbreaking work with western lowland gorillas. “We ended up being totally successful with the lowland gorilla collection,” Fisher elaborated. “In the early, early years there was Gargantua with Ringling and Bushman at the Lincoln Park Zoo so there was an initial interest in that. We were able to produce 43 gorillas during my tenure.”

@ Lincoln Park Zoo

Fisher was always partial to the gorillas. “I went to Africa, spent time studying gorillas and developed a fondness for them,” he noted. The zoo’s research with the species allowed them to get more and more successful. “We had good luck with breeding and ended up with mostly females so we had the potential for a better breeding background for the population,” Fisher explained. “We helped stock many of the zoos in the United States with their gorillas.” In fact, the Lincoln Park Zoo provided an entire family of gorillas to Disney when it opened Animal Kingdom.

@ Lincoln Park Zoo

The zoo began to become actively involved in great ape research and conservation. “We started bringing scientists in,” Fisher said. “We got a guy from Smithsonian who was our first scientist on staff. When I asked the city for support on science and education, they would say our mission is recreation. Happily a major donor gave us money to start a research unit on great apes which they named the Fisher Center. Now I look back and say we have one of the greatest conservation science groups around.”

@ Lincoln Park Zoo

@ Lincoln Park Zoo

While the Great Ape House was fantastic during this time, it has since been replaced by the Regenstein Center for African Apes. “It became apparent we needed something bigger and better so we built a second great ape house,” Fisher remarked. “In that building we decided to have families of gorillas and chimpanzees and sent our orangutans out to western zoos.” The state-of-the-art facility opened in 2004 after Fisher retired and remains one of the best of its kind.

@ Lincoln Park Zoo

“The new great ape house is very meaningful and a joy because the animals are using it, they’re comfortable and their wellbeing is positive,” Fisher explained. “We tried an all male group since half the babies are boys and what do you do when they grow up. Now they have the big time established group of gorillas and then the all-male group. Same with the chimpanzees. Some of the old-timers are still there living their days comfortably. Everything about the ape house works. Instead of having cement floors for cleaning abilities, they put in deep mulch, which is better for the animals.”

@ Lincoln Park Zoo

Fisher looked for whatever ways he could to keep the zoo relevant. “We remained unique in that we were one of the few meaningful collections of wild animals in America that was free,” he commented. “We had to think back on what we could do for visitation. My concern was how to make the visitor experience meaningful and worthwhile since large numbers were coming in. The corporate business community and foundations subsidized some of our needs. Today, we have a small, lovely zoological garden with beautiful landscape and proper homes for the animals.”

@ Lincoln Park Zoo

A major element in elevating the zoo was raising the professionalism of the staff. “What happened was in the early years if someone went to college and got a bachelor’s degree, that was a meaningful step up,” Fisher recalled. “When I came, we had keepers who had trouble signing their name on the payroll sheet. You put animals in a cage, gave them something to eat and thought you did your bit. We upgraded to the point we encouraged our curatorial staff to have a solid education. We started having curators with masters and PhDs. The whole idea was we were a public zoological garden with an emphasis on parts of the collection we could do research well. Today half the animal keepers at Lincoln Park Zoo have college degrees. I had to learn zoological medicine the hard way while now we have zoo veterinarians properly trained with zoological medicine. We’ve come a long way from the person just being able to physically clean a cage to someone who is able to care for the collection.“

@ Lincoln Park Zoo

“I found people who had an interest in wildlife and care of animals,” Fisher continued. “We were able to allow people to come and explore areas they were interested in. We established grants and encouraged graduate students to come and work on their master and doctorate programs. It used to be to work at the zoo you had to be over 21, male and a Chicago resident. Today 65% of our animal care staff are women. There has been a continuing positive shift towards better, education, better opportunity and a caring ambiance in the zoo.”

@ Lincoln Park Zoo

“The biggest hurdle I had was finding community support to accomplish the goals I needed,” Fisher reflected. “We had classic big city bureaucracy so I had to get them to work with me on the things they could get involved with. Once we started concentrating on endangered species, decided to have small breeding groups of those animals and let graphics tell the other things, I developed a group of physicians and first thing I knew I had 12-15 doctors who were specialists for whatever problem we had at the zoo to be looked at. I also of course developed the volunteer program. When I left there were 250 volunteers at Lincoln Park Zoo who were truly committed people.”

@ Lincoln Park Zoo

Fisher helped the zoo realize its potential to pass on educational messages to its huge audience. “On a nice summer Sunday, we can have 25,000 visitors,” he noted. “We tried to lay out programs in education and in the fall we could have 80-90 school buses a day. Nowadays teachers tie in a curriculum study for a zoo visit, come and do things at the zoo, come home and follow through. Now we are truly part of the educational program in Chicago. That’s on of the things I feel really good about.”

@ Lincoln Park Zoo

At one point, Fisher was looking for a new bird curator to expand the zoo’s bird collection. After searching, he found a young man who he felt was a perfect fit. “Kevin Bell literally was brought up in the Bronx Zoo and was just finishing work on a master’s degree,” Fisher remarked. “I thought maybe if he came to Lincoln Park Zoo, he could take out bird collection and grow with it. After all those many years as bird curator I retired and Kevin became the director. He has grown into the job. Kevin is continuing to go out and do meaningful fundraising and upgrade the zoo. I try to be supportive of him and the zoo without meddling.” Bell has been CEO of the Lincoln Park Zoo since 1993 and expanded on the legacy left by Dr. Fisher.

@ Lincoln Park Zoo

@ Lincoln Park Zoo

“Zoos will continue to do the best they can and ensure the animals are getting the best possible care,” Fisher reflected. “They’ll be limited opportunities for people to see and enjoy animals in the wild so zoos will play a specific role in that sense. It’s going to take an educational approach. [With Lincoln Park] we’re solid. The zoo will continue to be an important asset just as Chicago is blessed with a lot of wonderful museums. We’re a jewel of a facility where everyone can come to and everyone is welcome. What’s special about Lincoln Park Zoo is it’s the last happy neutral turf in Chicago. We can have 30-40,00 people here and not have a policeman around.”

@ Lincoln Park Zoo

“I want my legacy to be the fact I was able to bring the animals out of jail,” Lester Fisher concluded. “I was able to help start the trend of getting the 1910-1920 buildings up to date. The animals now have what I consider the best possible care and homes. I was able to get that going and the fact that continues today is great. I’d like to think I did the best for the people who worked there, the people who came there and the animals that lived there. It has given me great satisfaction the remarkable job Kevin Bell is doing.”

@ Lincoln Park Zoo

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I'm a 23-year old wildlife enthusiast, conservation and animal welfare advocate, environmental activist and zoo fanatic who aspires to work in zoo public relations or education. I am here to share some insight into the world's best zoos to show all the great things they are doing. 

 

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